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We Are Central: The Christians of Old California

We Are Central: The Christians of California

Spiritual integrity is always difficult; it is so easy to fool ourselves. The question is, Does Christanity as it has been practiced help us NOT fool ourselves?

The history of Christianity must look at what lies beyond the borders of “Church History of the Prevailing Culture”, which by its very nature can build a fine house, pull down the shades, turn on the lamp, are what it pleases, and justify itself even against the obvious. To some extent, this pulling down of the shades is seen as civilization, the triumph over nature and the inevitable progress and uplifting of God’s plan for creation. The light is artificial, and it would be inaccurate to say that the artificial light is the essence of Christianity?

This essay is concerned with the unintended byproducts of Christianity such as colonization, racism, genocide of people and culture. Although this story took many forms in many places, it took a distinct shape in California. The other essay in this group shows, from the work of James Rawls predominantly, the view of California Indians as they were made useful, exploited, and exterminated.

This essay is drawn almost exclusively from Kevin Starr’s unique book, Americans and the California Dream. The fact is that Christian denominational churches rarely entered the predicament of the native American tribes. Start does not apologize for this in any way, and spends a chapter on the major denominations in early California, dwelling on sermons and accomplishments and effects on the prevailing culture – with one exception. In setting off Rawls and Starr, this structure also allows for what historians look at to paint the picture of a period. These two essays are parabolic, perhaps of how easy it is to fool ourselves about “God’s” will, among other things.

In a culture that linked economy with divine providence in essential matters of life, it was “inevitable” that gold and silver discoveries would be linked to “God’s” will in a big way. It was also inevitable, and “God’s” will, that California would be transformed and redeemed by the discovery of that gold and silver. God’s divine purpose was written all over California.

New England nourished the concept of “City on a Hill.” It made sense, then, that Boston’s American Home Missionary Society would be one of the first suppliers of ministers to California. Wealthy, philanthropic, generous eastern churches sent educated, illustrious , devoted ministers. Once there, New England immigrants, envisioning a Christian state, flung themselves into the political arena. They fought slavery, gambling, and lenient divorce laws. The New Englanders and their ministers established California’s common school system, although the Catholics had them beaten when it came to establishing colleges. The Protestants could barely support the little College of California.

The Catholics

They had been there before the other Christian faiths. The Jesuits awarded the first bachelor’s degrees in 1857 at St. Ignatius College. Daughters of wealthy families studied with the Notre Dame Sisters at San Jose (although the Sisters turned away Paiute “princesses” Sarah Winnemucca and her sister), an incident that influenced the chapter “Elisabeth” in Who Have the Power

The Catholic population in California grew fast, building on the early Spanish foundation. In the 1850s, Irish and Italian immigrants poured into the state, alarming the Protestants, and generating a vigorous nation-wide anti-Catholic movement. In 1853, Lyman Beecher had pleaded the urgency of Protestant mission in order to defeat Catholicism.

San Francisco’s Board of Education, dominated by New England Protestants, also worked against the Catholics by dictating daily reading of the Bible in public schools for “the harmonizing of our heterogeneousu population into one people.” Vigilance Committees throughout the 1850s perpetrated violence on the Irish and were supported by a quietly acquiescing ministry that also supported the Knew Nothing Movement. Timothy Dwight Hunt, the Presbyterian minister, called the anti-Catholic violence a “cleansing.” The growing number of Catholics in the state, however, doomed Know Nothingism by the decade’s end.

Protestant Episcopalians

The Episcopal Church in California quickly developed a rich ecclesiastical culture. In 1853, the General Convention sent out, as missionary bishop, Yale trained historian and Scripture scholar William Ingraham Kip. Kip had been consecrated at Trinity Church in New York and epitomized High Church. Yet, once in California, Kip rode through the state on horseback, sleeping outside alone at night in rolled blankets, a purposeful man with great determination and sense of mission. In a sense, he was characteristic of the kind of missionary sent to California – supported by wealth and tradition, full of energy and purpose, and educated to the core.

Presbyterians and Congregationalists

Timothy Dwight Hunt was the first sent and was followed by Samuel Hopkins Willey who urged his congregation as follows: “Let us go forth anew in the name of our divine Master. Though few, we are entrusted with the establishment and defense of the gospel in one of the most important parts of the world. We are central.”

New Hampshire born Willey was the first executive president of the humble College of California at Oakland, founded in 1860. Fervently fired by the gospel, Willey founded California’s first public library and Howard Street Presbyterian Church, campaigned for the College of California, preached all over the state, wrote numerous articles on local history, and toward the end of his life, received an honorary doctorate from the University of California.

Then there was Charles Wadsworth of Philadelphia, beloved by Emily Dickenson, who arrived at San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian in 1862. Six years later, he thanked God for a land where “our merchant princes even now delight to plant gardens like Eden and to build palaces to embosom a new social life and enshrine types of art fairer than the Greek.”

Fairer than the Greek! Merchant princes! Gardens like Eden!

Almost an anomaly was William Speer, a former missionary to Canton, who came to San Francisco in 1852, and who broke his health working against the oppression of the Chinese. Most prosperous western cities quickly organized themselves into ethnic/racial units that took a person from birth, to social organization, to the cemetery in the company of “one’s own kind.” Journals and diaries, describe separate black social events – dances, picnics, and fandangos, What could astonish any reader of the typical frontier history books of the nineteenth century, and any books using them as sources, is that there were several ethnic groups and that there were large numbers of what we call minorities out west who never made it into Gunsmoke. And if “minorities” do occur in primary sources, they receive some bad treatment. One such author is Mary Mathews’ account of ten years living in Virginia City, Nevada; Mark Twain’s newspaper writings from Virginia City and California; Alf Doten’s journals; Mary Austin’s fiction; and Dan DeQuille’s history of the Comstock Lode. But in our own time, thanks to more open admissions in universities, previously hidden stories have been uncovered.

African Methodist Episcopal

The blacks in California suffered fundamental problems, and so their visions were fundamental. Southern whites were permitted to bring their slaves with them, but the state constitution practically forbade entrance to free blacks. Like any other person deemed “inferior”, such as women, blacks could not vote or testify in court. They attended poor and segregate schools and were hounded by fugitive slave hunters. Churches were their only power base, and their gospel was one of solidarity and cohesion. Assets of black churches in California were listed in 1855 as three million dollars, so they were able to shield themselves to some extent from the rest of Christianity. But the blacks were not necessarily interested in “shielding themselves” or closing the church door to the outside world. In Sacramento, Peter Cole told the AME convention, in 1855: “for we are here, a terrible host ready, willing, eager to do battle, such as ne’er was seen, ‘gainst the oppressor. We must teach him that the battle is not always to the strong. The Rights of the Negro, or War!

Blacks started their own press that year. The motto of The Pacific Appeal was, “He who must be free himself must strike the blow.”


They were California’s largest Protestant denomination, their system of itinerant preaching well suited to frontier conditions. Exemplary in ministry was Virginia born William Taylor of San Francisco, of Scots-Irish descent. He preached on the streets, pastured a church, worked as a journalist, and was a hospital chaplain. When he arrived in California, he built his own home, and during rest breaks, he preached to lumberjacks working beside him. He preached everywhere, in saloons, standing on a dry goods box in the street, at Long Wharf to disembarking passengers, sailors, and prostitutes. He preached, “When St. Peter saw in vision on the house tops of Simon the tanner…is exhibited in fact in California and none of them common nor unclean, nor excluded from the covenant of mercy…But all are subjects of redeeming love and living objects of the Savior’s sympathy and intercessions.”

Taylor went on preaching all over the world. In 1884, he was elected bishop of Africa. Of California, he said, “IT was a weak and delicate plant in Zion…but we watered and cultivated it, and it lived and grew and is now quite a tree, bearing fruit to the glory of God.”


The Unitarians sent Thomas Starr King of Hollis Street Church in Boston. Slight of build yet driven by enormous energy, he was self taught in Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, and German. In San Francisco, he was indeed a star. There is a brief mention of his wife, who seems to have been constantly sick, and he was usually seen in the company of Mrs. Jessie Fremont, the explorer’s wife and his prime benefactor. His church was packed, he received the best business advice about investing in the mines, and he has gone down in history as having saved California and Nevada for the Union in a series of fiery stump speeches in which he preached one, indivisible Union, ordained by God. Starr loved California, particularly its natural beauty. In Yosemite, he felt, “that which the Israelites felt amid the passes of Sinai when the Divine glory was on the mount.” (True to the metaphor, the Ahwahneetchie people had been driven out, and Yosemite was already a tourist spot.) Mr. Jessie Fremont tried to start a movement to elect Starr to the Senate, but he died at the age of 39 of pneumonia and diphtheria on March 4, 1864. The next day, in his honor, San Francisco closed its public buildings.

Both Benton and King had preached a California transformed and redeemed by Christianity. And Christianity did transform California. In a few years, the land had been claimed for development, there were church spires, buildings with elevators, banks, hydraulic mining, railroads, opera houses, oysters and lobster on ice, French food and wine, free lunches, manufacturing, and slums in San Francisco’s Happy Valley. His sense that a “worthy people” had reached California is not entirely wrong; these people were certainly worthy, as worthy as those who were there in the first place. And the California churches cared for “abandoned children, protected the troubled and insane, relieved the destitute, and sponsored social agencies. In the mines…churches doubled as hospitals, schools, lending libraries, community centers, lyceums, and debating societies. Church sponsored newspapers fought a continual battle for social reforms.”

There was plenty to do within the work of the culture itself. Can they be blamed for not seeing or heeding the other side to this city on a hill?

The Christian mind is steeped in Scriptural myth mixed with classical scholarship. The ministers sent to California were in fact classically trained and sponsored by wealthy churches. They knew Paul and Aristotle. Those Christians without such training or wealth might have a different perspective to offer, but theirs are not the loudest voices in history, yet.

The script had been written. The Old Testament scheme as well as the New operated. Ministers played Paul or Moses. Mexicans and Indians were cast as Canaanites. California posed as Babylon or Eden or the New Jerusalem. Progress and Providence were seen as One. The Salvation of California was evidenced by tall, prosperous, and well attended churches filled with one’s own kind, and many social programs. Christian leaders of this period did not contemplate the dispossession, exploitation, or extermination of native peoples, or of class problems in general. (Mary Mathews, the seamstress who wrote of her life in boomtown Virginia City, wrote hot words against almost any ethnic group you can think of, backing her arguments with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Our government made by us. She chose, without knowing it, Stephen Douglas’ argument that the nation was made by white males, for white males.

To be steeped in a particular metaphor is also to be trapped in it. The consistent focus on one world view naturally creates vicious philosophical cycles: How similar are Aquinas and Freud and Barth, for instance, when they discuss women. Arguments make sense because they sound familiar. If it’s not part of the story, or it can’t be worked into the story, then it is not there, it does not exist. And that kind of a focus cannot make sense of different cultures. It presses for conformity. To the extent that any openness is possible is, I think, a credit to the strength of our own curiosity and imagination – that part that refuses to be stifled and molded. Even the same world view of Scripture and classical thought, with people who have struggled to learn it from different experiences and cultures, gives it new life and meaning. But not without a struggle.

In the other essay of this group, I mentioned Sarah Winnemucca, and I’d like to make her a linking figure. Two existing biographies are woefully inadequate, but they are inadequate because she is so complex to approach. Women no matter where or who they are, instantly need to live in two cultures. Sarah had to live in at least four. This is why she stubbornly keeps between the lines in our history books, a crowded marginalia. It is also why she felt alien in all her worlds, much like Elisabeth. Sarah was born a Northern Paiute, by Lake Pyramid in Nevada. AS a young child, she was sent to live with the Ormsby family in Carson City to learn Christian and “white” ways, and I suspect, to be a servant as well, as a companion to Lizzie Ormsby, a relationship echoed by that of Elisabeth and Maakbuhusing. In 1860, Mr. Ormsby was killed in a Paiute uprising, ending that living arrangement. Sarah continued to maintain her tie with white culture, working with the military and Indian agents as an interpreter and with white women, in particular Mary Mann and Elizabeth Peabody, as she engaged in political and social struggle for her people. There were times when her people believed she betrayed them, and times hen they took her in because she had no other place to go. She was a writer, she went on stage to share the customs of her people, she built schools, raised money, and was ridiculed for her sexual behavior by contemporary writers. Pulled by several cultures in several directions, working alone for the most part, and caught up in a time warp that in a single generation wreaked havoc and ruin on a centuries-old culture, how could Sarah even see herself? She died at age 49. When the prevailing culture can understand and learn from Sarah, who lives between the lines, then we might be breaking the cycle of ignoring what we choose not to see.

For to see only two sides in an issue, as these two essays do, is an illusion. Such a perspective defeated and made invisible Sarah Winnemucca and how many others. Such a perspective acquiesces to the larger ‘”inevitable” cause of it all, that creation is not diverse and multiplicitous, and issues can be solved by reducing them to two sides and choosing the best. Answers are often between the sides. There is fear within us now, no matter what someone said thousands of years ago and how we read it and for what purposes. To what extent we use the past is characteristic of our own wisdom. New worlds multiply and invite exploration. The capacity to nurture and believe our illusions, and to transform reality, is a power and a danger. It is a danger because it causes us to deny the sufferings of others or to pin the blame for their own troubles on them because we cannot see them, they do not fit our vision.

Christian culture can never claim any superiority if , in spite of its own energy, it recognizes and permits destruction of life or heart or spirit, and nurture the concept of inferiority that would bring such destruction. Christianity cannot claim any superiority if it cannot within itself deal with a concept of diversity and multiplicity in creation and belief. The sins it so angrily tries to stomp out are, in fact, caused by its own closed heart and closed eyes. For those who struggle with this in their faith and in themselves, please continue the struggle.

“What has been passing for Christianity during theses nineteen centuries is merely a beginning, full of weaknesses and mistakes, not a full grown Christianity springing from the spirit of Jesus.” – Albert Schweitzer

copyright Mary Sheeran 2005

Who Have the Power
364 pages
Bookshelf Press/WingSpan imprint
ISBN 1-59594-039-1
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